Today I went to visit the local onsen, Yura no ri. It loosely translates to something along the lines of “Village hot springs.” After an accidental self-guided driving tour (and $5 spent on a road toll!) I finally ended up at the hot springs. It was a pretty nasty day outside and hot springs were the perfect remedy.
Japan is volcanic, thus the abundance of hot springs. Onsen are essentially spas–sitting in the hot springs is incredibly relaxing, and the minerals in the water are often good for a variety of ailments. People can also get massages and all different sorts of spa treatments.
Here’s the catch though–going to the onsen means getting naked in front of a bunch of complete strangers (and friends if you go in a group) of the same sex. There are mixed onsen, but generally most onsen are gender segregated. This is often problematic for Westerners, because this can be quite awkward for us. In Japan, however, there is a concept known as “Hadaka no tsukiai” or “naked association.” People are able to bond in this manner with one another, perhaps by reducing themselves to their–literally–barest human state.
So I went in to the onsen today and decided to just use the baths. Inside the complex there are a variety of things: a restaurant, multiple saunas, a massage parlor, places to just sit and relax, and of course, the baths. Generally what happens is men and women split off to their respective locker rooms, and directly from the locker rooms you can enter the “Ofuro” or “baths.” Again, most onsen are gender segregated so it’s just same-sex. Once you have entered the baths, you first wash yourself, and once clean you can enter the baths. There are usually indoor baths, outdoor baths, hot baths, super hot baths, a cold bath to help you cool off, and a sauna. Usually people rotate between all of these things. Of course I was the only non-Japanese person at the onsen today, go figure. My favorite type of baths to go to in the winter are “Rotenburo” or “outdoor baths.” They are often high temperature baths to counter the cold. Looking out over Tokyo Bay in the wintry gray afternoon with the steam from the onsen blowing in the wind was incredibly relaxing, and very Nihon-rashii (Japanese-like). Quite a fabulous Sunday all in all.
Six years ago I lived in Fujieda city in Shizuoka prefecture. I was an exchange student (for the 2nd time) and I was living with my host family. On New Year’s Eve we stayed up late and watched 紅白歌合戦, Kohaku Uta Gassen (Red and White Song Battle) an annual music program which is always broadcast before midnight. Many popular artists come together and are divided up by female and male participants into the red team and the white team, respectively. I remember Kobukuro sang “Sakura,” AIKO sang, “Star,” and Ishikawa Sayuri sang “Amagiegoe.” There were many others, but those are the songs that I remember. I could have sworn Ketsumeishi was also there singing “Sakura,” but I believe they appeared on television at a later point.
We woke up before sunrise the next morning, I don’t remember what time–maybe about 4 AM. My host parents, my two host brothers, and myself all piled into our white van and we headed to Shizunami Beach to view the “Hatsu hi” or the “First day’s sunrise.” We stopped at a convenient store to pick up some snacks and I remember seeing a group of young “yankii” guys hanging out (“Yankii” are usually young, Yakuza-hopefuls). They all had the trademark blonde hair, mopeds, and piercings. Moving on, we made our way down to the beach. It was still dark when we arrived, and still quite cold. Many others had come as well, some people had started their own fires to keep wam. A martial arts instructor led the way for his young class, singing cadences. They commenced their morning exercises clad only in the thin, white gis; it must have been only 35 degrees outside.
It was cloudy but the sky was starting to lighten, and in between the clouds you could see the hues beginning to change. Twilight beginning to turn into the warm orange of the approaching sun, and then suddenly it came over the horizon, and it was day.
At shrines people often purchase little mementoes to write down the wishes they ask of the gods. In Kamakura, at Tsurugaoka Hachiman-guu shrine, I saw one that read, “Maybe the past has not been so memorable, but life from here on out is abundant.” I try to carry this with me for 2012.
I traded in my blonde hair for some lovely lavender locks to sport on New Year’s Eve. We had lots of fun out at our “traditional” spot. I’ll be back in the states a bit spending time with friends and family before returning to Japan.